El Salvador Elections: The Ghosts of Izalco


March 15, 2009

4:45 AM

As we approach the voting center in Izalco where our international observer team will be stationed, the weight of history is hard to escape. Both the left and right of El Salvador trace their political roots to this small town in the western coffee-growing department of Sonsonate.


Here in 1932, some 30,000 mostly indigenous peasants were slaughtered by the US-backed military dictator, General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, following an unsuccessful rebellion sparked by the collapse of the coffee economy and the government’s refusal to certify leftist victories in the local elections. Agustín Farabundo Marti, the Communist patriot after whom the FMLN takes its name, was captured here and executed for instigating the uprising–although recent scholarship emphasizes its indigenous roots and leadership.


Subsequently, all accounts of the insurrection and massacre ("La Matanza") were expunged from the public record. For self-protection, the region’s remaining indigenous population (still one of El Salvador’s largest) abandoned its native dress, language, and culture. Generations of Salvadoreños have grown up unaware of Izalco’s history. 


The right-wing governing ARENA party, along with its infamous death squads, was founded in Izalco in 1981. Every five years, ARENA launches its presidential campaign here, the place where the country was "saved from Communism." (The ARENA anthem extols El Salvador as "the tomb where the Reds will be buried.")


ARENA controlled Izalco’s local government for 28 years–until this past January, when the FMLN scored an upset victory in the mayoral election. Clearly the winds of change blowing across the country have reached Izalco, and the presidential election will be hotly contested here.


At our pre-election briefing last night, Izalco’s FMLN leaders welcomed us to the "home of El Salvador’s heroes and fallen martyrs" and warned of likely voting fraud, electoral conflicts, and post-election violence. Now outside the voting center, eager pro-FMLN crowds are cheering our arrival. "Los ojos! Contamos con ustedes!" ("The eyes! We are counting on you!")


5:30 AM

The 58 Juntas Receptoras de Votos (Vote-Receiving Boards, or JRVs) in our school are setting up their voting stations. They are jammed into every available nook and cranny. The six tables that I am observing are jostling for floor space in a cramped corridor that is half outside the building.


The set-up is tedious: verifying the ballot sequence, assembling the cardboard voting "shelf" and ballot box, posting the public voter registry, strategically arranging the critical table supplies–ink for dipping and marking thumbs to prevent double-voting, degreaser to clean the thumb before dipping, toilet paper to wipe the excess ink, etc). But the JRVs are proceeding diligently and with good humor. A friendly competition ensues among the six tables, to see who can finish the set-up first. 


Each JRV table is crowded with four official members, their alternates, and two vigilantes (overseers). Each party (ARENA and FMLN) has equal representation–a potential recipe for stalemate. Officially, only the vigilantes wear their respective party colors, but all the FMLN members sport a subtle pin depicting the torogoz, El Salvador’s magnificent national bird. I am relieved to know who they are (since everyone from both sides is equally friendly).


6:00 AM  


A small commotion. Two ARENA alternates want to vote immediately in order to return home to cook lunch for their poll workers (an irregular procedure, since JRV members are supposed to remain at the center all day). They are instructed to wait until 6:30, when the other JRV members at the table will vote. After the cocineras (cooks) vote, their DUIs (Documentos Unicos de Identidad, or identity cards) are confiscated to ensure that they cannot vote elsewhere, and they are permitted to leave. Everyone seems satisfied with the solution.


I step outside to check the lines before the polls open at 7 AM. It’s beginning to rain. When  I return, the six tables have disappeared! I discover that they have spontaneously relocated to a drier, tented area in the courtyard, which is considerably more spacious. They are pleased with the upgrade.


9:00 AM

The polls have been open for two hours, and the rush is beginning. The lines outside stretch as far as we can see. Quite a few older women voters are wearing indigenous dress and signing the registry with a thumbprint. Many voters are wearing red.


The DUIs are being carefully scrutinized by the tables. We have been warned about fraudulent DUIs issued to foreigners (Nicaraguans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans) who are being bussed into the country to vote for ARENA–a practice made possible by the government’s refusal to update and purge the voting registry of thousands now living in the US or deceased. To the extent that this institutional fraud has already occurred, it is difficult to detect now. In the few cases where we observe DUIs being challenged, both sides seem to agree.


11:00 AM

A voter presents a DUI that appears to be double-laminated. The FMLN vigilante summons his party supervisor by blowing a whistle. His ARENA counterpart does the same by ringing a bell. (This novel system of dispute resolution–perhaps unique to our center–provides an ongoing cacophony of bells and whistles as the soundtrack to the voting day.) The ARENA supervisor pecks at the DUI and peels off the second coat of laminate. Nothing has changed. "Now it is single-laminated," he says. The FMLN supervisor agrees. The problem is solved.


The ARENA cocineras return with ample lunches for their poll workers, adorned with party propaganda. The FMLN lunches–arriving much later–are modest but similarly decorated. This may be is a violation of the voting rules but no one seems to object.   


12:00 PM

On lunch break, we relax in the central square. The FMLN is highly visible here, with music, banners, and propaganda tables. An elderly man wearing a bright red shirt gives me an urgent message for President Obama. "Es un hombre humilde y pobre, no? (isn’t he a humble and poor man?") I demur. He wants Obama to know that the Salvadoran people need his help to live a decent life in their own country (currently they are leaving, mostly for the US, at the rate of 500-700 per day). All they want is change, he says, just like Obama.


We encounter Jose Luis and Fernando, the FMLN leaders, who hold up their inked thumbs in a hopeful victory sign. We ask if Maurio Funes is really a leftist. Their answer is deliberate. "He is what we need right now, to break the power of the right." We nod, thinking: just like Obama.


We ask if there is a commemoration for the dead martyrs of La Matanza anywhere in the city. They shrug. "Los muertos estan abajo de las calles (the dead are under the streets)." Later, I learn that there is a plaque in a nearby field, the actual site where many were slaughtered, less than a block from the ARENA headquarters.


3:00 PM

Another voting surge. Many late-afternoon voters are flamboyantly sporting FMLN shirts, banners, and hats. Babies in red dresses. It seems a far cry from 1932, at least on the surface.


More bells and whistles. We remain on the lookout for suspicious activity.  It is widely rumored that voters are taking cellphone photos of their ballots marked for ARENA, to show to their employers (as a condition of keeping their jobs). While this may be happening, we don’t see it. Perhaps ARENA has developed even more subtle methods of intimidation. What we mostly observe is the JVR members and vigilantes working diligently to ensure the integrity of the vote. 


Several JRVs are running out of toilet paper. I divide up my roll and pass the sheets around.


4:30 PM

The last voters of the day are trickling in. The JRVs are restless now, waiting for the doors to close so the vote count can begin. Several tables want me to take their photos. Some of the FMLN and ARENA vigilantes who have been working together all day insist on posing arm-in-arm, or shaking hands.


As the sky clears, there is a stunning view of the Izalco volcano from the courtyard where my tables are starting to pack up. It was the volcano’s eruption, in January 1932, that signalled the start of the abortive rebellion.


5:00 PM

The doors are locked. The most efficient JRV in my group is already tallying the stamped registry, the signed registry, and the corners torn off each used ballot which have been collected in a plastic bag. Representatives of each party count aloud, in a single voice. The three tallies do not agree. They stare at one another in disbelief. The supervisors are consulted, and decide it’s close enough, mas o menos (more or less).


Each JRV is now opening its ballot box and sorting the ballots into piles: ARENA, FMLN, null (blank or voted for both), and contested. A heated argument ensues over one ballot, where the voter has marked the ARENA flag but added the words "Dios los ayude (God help them)." According to the FMLN members, the additional words void the ballot. ARENA maintains that the voter’s intent is clear. Bells and whistles summon the supervisors, who consult their dog-eared electoral codes. The ballot is marked contested.


As we wander around the center, it is clear that the FMLN ballot piles are lower than ARENA’s at most of the tables. We are losing the vote in Izalco. But a cheer goes up outside from supporters listening to the radio in the streets. "We are winning in San Salvador," someone whispers.


7:30 PM

The JRV vote tallies have been scanned in. The ballots are packed up in cartons and hoisted high in the air as the exhausted JRV members participate in a final joint ceremonial march to the doorway.


Out in the streets, the preliminary results have been announced and the FMLN is cautiously asserting victory. Our FMLN friends are ready to celebrate, while lamenting the loss in Izalco (where the 75-year legacy of el miedo–the fear–will take more time to overcome). We hold our breaths. We can hardly believe what is happening.


9:30 PM


At the FMLN headquarters in Sonsonate, everyone is riveted to the TV watching Mauricio Funes’ acceptance speech. He speaks about national reconciliation, party unity, and overcoming the divisions and conflicts of the past. 


Now we are dancing in the streets of Sonsonate, ahead of a caravan of flag-waving pickup trucks, swept up in a tide of red and a historic moment that none of us will ever forget. We learn later that while the FMLN lost with 44% of the vote in Izalco, they won with 53% in the department of Sonsonate–higher than the national rate of 51%.


We are celebrating the FMLN victory but, equally important, the triumph of the Salvadoran people. Against tremendous institutional odds and with great determination, they have defended the vote and their right to a peaceful, democratic electoral process. They have invested in and practiced a grassroots participatory democracy that sets an example for the entire world. And though Mauricio Funes didn’t acknowledge them publicly, we know that the martyred heroes and ghosts of Izalco–Farabundo Martí, Feliciano Ama, Alfonso Luna, Manuel Mojica, and so many thousands of others–are in the streets there with us, conquering the fear, breaking the silence, and dancing towards El Salvador’s brighter future.


Emily Achtenberg is a Boston-based urban planner who also writes about and studies Latin America. She was an electoral observer with the National Lawyers Guild and the SHARE Foundation.